Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

The nearest Way to Norway.

No such blessing as a good night’s rest was in store for Violet Tempest on that night of the first of August. She lay in a state of half-consciousness that was near akin to delirium. When she closed her eyes for a little while the demon of evil dreams took hold of her. She was in the old familiar home-scenes with her dear dead father. She acted over again that awful tragedy of sudden death. She was upbraiding her mother about Captain Winstanley. Bitter words were on her lips; words more bitter than even she had ever spoken in all her intensity of adverse feeling. She was in the woody hollow by Rufus’s stone, blindfold, with arms stretched helplessly out, seeking for Rorie among the smooth beech-boles, with a dreadful sense of loneliness, and a fear that he was far away, and that she would perish, lost and alone, in that dismal wood.

So the slow night wore on to morning. Sometimes she lay staring idly at the stars, shining so serenely in that calm summer sky. She wondered what life was like, yonder, in those remote worlds. Was humanity’s portion as sad, fate as adverse, there as here? Then she thought of Egypt, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra — that story of a wild, undisciplined love, grand in its lawless passion — its awful doom. To have loved thus, and died thus, seemed a higher destiny than to do right, and patiently conquer sorrow, and live on somehow to the dismal end of the dull blameless chapter.

At last, with what laggard steps, with what oppressive tardiness, came the dawn, in long streaks of lurid light above the edge of the distant waters.

“‘Red sky at morning is the shepherd’s warning!’” cried Vixen, with dry lips. “Thank God there will be rain to-day! Welcome change after the hot arid skies, and the cruel brazen sun, mocking all the miseries of this troubled earth.”

She felt almost as wildly glad as the Ancient Mariner, at the idea of that blessed relief; and then, by-and-by, with the changeful light shining on her face, she fell into a deep sleep.

Perhaps that morning sleep saved Vixen from an impending fever. It was the first refreshing slumber she had had for a week — a sweet dreamless sleep. The breakfast-bell rang unheeded. The rain, forecast by that red sky, fell in soft showers upon the verdant isle, and the grateful earth gave back its sweetest perfumes to the cool, moist air.

Miss Skipwith came softly in to look at her charge, saw her sleeping peacefully, and as softly retired.

“Poor child! the initiation has been too much for her unformed mind,” she murmured complacently, pleased with herself for having secured a disciple. “The path is narrow and rugged at the beginning, but it will broaden out before her as she goes on.”

Violet awoke, and found that it was mid-day. Oh, what a blessed relief that long morning sleep had been. She woke like a creature cured of mortal pain. She fell on her knees beside the bed, and prayed as she had not often prayed in her brief careless life.

“What am I that I should question Thy justice!” she cried. “Lord, teach me to submit, teach me to bear my burden patiently, and to do some good in the world.”

Her mood and temper were wondrously softened after a long interval of thought and prayer. She was ashamed of her waywardness of yesterday — her foolish unreasonable passion.

“Poor Rorie, I told him to keep his promise, and he has obeyed me,” she said to herself. “Can I be angry with him for that? I ought to feel proud and glad that we were both strong enough to do our duty.”

She dressed slowly, languid after the excitement of yesterday, and then went slowly down the broad bare staircase to Miss Skipwith’s parlour.

The lady of the manor received her with affectionate greeting, and had a special pot of tea brewed for her, and insisted upon her eating some dry toast, a form of nourishment which this temperate lady deemed a panacea in illness.

“I was positively alarmed about you last night, my dear,” she said; “you were so feverish and excited. You read too much, for the first day.”

“I’m afraid I did,” assented Vixen, with a faint smile; “and the worst of it is, I believe I have forgotten every word I read.”

“Surely not!” cried Miss Skipwith, horrified at this admission. “You seemed so impressed — so interested. You were so full of your subject.”

“I have a faint recollection of the little men in the hieroglyphics,” said Vixen; “but all the rest is gone. The images of Antony and Cleopatra, in Shakespeare’s play, bring Egypt more vividly before me than all the history I read yesterday.”

Miss Skipwith looked shocked, just as if some improper character in real life had been brought before her.

“Cleopatra was very disreputable, and she was not Egyptian,” she remarked severely. “I am sorry you should waste your thoughts upon such a person.”

“I think she is the most interesting woman in ancient history,” said Vixen wilfully, “as Mary Queen of Scots is in modern history. It is not the good people whose images take hold of one’s fancy, What a faint idea one has of Lady Jane Grey, And, in Schiller’s ‘Don Carlos,’ I confess the Marquis of Posa never interested me half so keenly as Philip of Spain.”

“My dear, you are made up of fancies and caprices. Your mind wants balance,” said Miss Skipwith, affronted at this frivolity. “Had you not better go for a walk with your dog? Doddery tells me that poor Argus has not had a good run since last week.”

“How wicked of me!” cried Vixen. “Poor old fellow! I had almost forgotten his existence. Yes, I should like a long walk, if you will not think me idle.”

“You studied too many hours yesterday, my dear. It will do you good to relax the bow to-day. Non semper arcum tendit Apollo!

“I’ll go for my favourite walk to Mount Orgueil. I don’t think there’ll be any more rain. Please excuse me if I am not home in time for dinner. I can have a little cold meat, or an egg, for my tea.”

“You had better take a sandwich with you,” said Miss Skipwith, with unusual thoughtfulness. “You have been eating hardly anything lately.”

Vixen did not care about the sandwich, but submitted, to please her hostess, and a neat little paper parcel, containing about three ounces of nutriment, was made up for her by Mrs. Doddery. Never had the island looked fairer in its summer beauty than it did to-day, after the morning’s rain. These showers had been to Jersey what sleep had been to Vixen. The air was soft and cool; sparkling rain-drops fell like diamonds from the leaves of ash and elm. The hedge-row ferns had taken a new green, as if the spirit of spring had revisited the island. The blue bright sea was dimpled with wavelets.

What a bright glad world it was, and how great must be the sin of a rebellious spirit, cavilling at the dealings of its Creator! The happy dog bounced and bounded round his mistress, the birds twittered in the hedges, the passing farm-labourer with his cartload of seaweed smacked his whip cheerily as he urged his patient horse along the narrow lane. A huge van-load of Cockney tourists, singing a boisterous chorus of the last music-hall song, passed Vixen at a turn of the road, and made a blot on the serene beauty of the scene. They were going to eat lobsters and drink bottled beer and play skittles at Le Tac. Vixen rejoiced when their raucous voices died away on the summer breeze.

“Why is Jersey the peculiar haunt of the vulgar?” she wondered. “It is such a lovely place that it deserves to be visited by something better than the refuse of Margate and Ramsgate.”

There was a meadow-path which lessened the distance between Les Tourelles and Mount Orgueil. Vixen had just left the road and entered the meadow when Argus set up a joyous bark, and ran back to salute a passing vehicle. It was a St. Helier’s fly, driving at a tremendous pace in the direction from which she had come. A young man lay back in the carriage, smoking a cigar, with his hat slouched over his eyes. Vixen could just see the strong sunburnt hand flung up above his head. It was a foolish fancy, doubtless, but that broad brown hand reminded her of Rorie’s. Argus leaped the stile, rushed after the vehicle, and saluted it clamorously. The poor brute had been mewed up for a week in a dull courtyard, and was rejoiced at having something to bark at.

Vixen walked on to the seashore, and the smiling little harbour, and the brave old castle. There was the usual party of tourists following the guide through narrow passages and echoing chambers, and peering into the rooms where Charles Stuart endured his exile, and making those lively remarks and speculations whereby the average tourist is prone to reveal his hazy notions of history. Happily Vixen knew of quiet corners upon the upward walls whither tourists rarely penetrated; nooks in which she had sat through many an hour of sun and shade, reading, musing, or sketching with free untutored pencil, for the mere idle delight of the moment. Here in this loneliness, between land and sea, she had nursed her sorrow and made much of her grief. She liked the place. No obtrusive sympathy had ever made it odious to her. Here she was mistress of herself and her own thoughts. To-day she went to her favourite corner, a seat in an angle of the battlemented wall, and sat there with her arms folded on the stone parapet, looking dreamily seaward, across the blue channel to the still bluer coast of Normandy, where the tower of Coutance showed dimly in the distance.

Resignation. Yes, that was to be her portion henceforward. She must live out her life, in isolation almost as complete as Miss Skipwith’s, without the innocent delusions which gave substance and colour to that lonely lady’s existence.

“If I could only have a craze,” she thought hopelessly, “some harmless monomania which would fill my mind! The maniacs in Bedlam, who fancy themselves popes or queens, are happy in their foolish way. If I could only imagine myself something which I am not — anything except poor useless Violet Tempest, who has no place in the world!”

The sun was gaining power, the air was drowsy, the soft ripple of the tide upon the golden sand was like a lullaby. Even that long sleep of the morning had not cured Vixen’s weariness. There were long arrears of slumber yet to be made up. Her eyelids drooped, then closed altogether, the ocean lullaby took a still softer sound, the distant voices of the tourists grew infinitely soothing, and Vixen sank quietly to sleep, her head leaning on her folded arms, the gentle west wind faintly stirring her loose hair.

“‘Oh, happy kiss that woke thy sleep!’” cried a familiar voice close in the slumberer’s ear, and then a warm breath, which was not the summer wind, fanned the cheek that lay upmost upon her arm, two warm lips were pressed against that glowing cheek in ardent greeting. The girl started to her feet, every vein tingling with the thrilling recognition of her assailant. There was no one else — none other than he — in this wide world who would do such a thing! She sprang up, and faced him, her eyes flashing, her cheeks crimson.

“How dare you?” she cried. “Then it was you I saw in the fly? Pray, is this the nearest way to Norway?”

Yes, it was Rorie; looking exactly like the familiar Rorie of old; not one whit altered by marriage with a duke’s only daughter; a stalwart young fellow in a rough gray suit, a dark face sunburnt to deepest bronze, eyes with a happy smile in them, firmly-cut lips half hidden by the thick brown beard, a face that would have looked well under a lifted helmet — such a face as the scared Saxons must have seen among the bold followers of William the Norman, when those hardy Norse warriors ran amuck in Dover town.

“Not to my knowledge,” answered this audacious villain, in his lightest tone. “I am not very geographical. But I should think it was rather out of the way.”

“Then you and Lady Mabel have changed your plans?” said Vixen, trembling very much, but trying desperately to be as calmly commonplace as a young lady talking to an ineligible partner at a ball. “You are not going to the north of Europe?”

“Lady Mabel and I have changed our plans. We are not going to the north of Europe.”

“Oh!”

“In point of fact, we are not going anywhere.”

“But you have come to Jersey. That is part of your tour, I suppose?”

“Do not be too hasty in your suppositions, Miss Tempest. I have come to Jersey — I am quite willing to admit as much as that.”

“And Lady Mabel? She is with you, of course?”

“Not the least bit in the world. To the best of my knowledge, Lady Mabel — I beg her pardon — Lady Mallow is now on her way the fishing-grounds of Connemara with her husband.”

“Rorie!”

What a glad happy cry that was! It was like a gush of sudden music from a young blackbird’s throat on a sunny spring morning. The crimson dye had faded from Violet’s cheeks a minute ago and left her deadly pale. Now the bright colour rushed back again, the happy brown eyes, the sweet blush-rose lips, broke into the gladdest smile that ever Rorie had seen upon her face. He held out his arms, he clasped her to his breast, where she rested unresistingly, infinitely happy. Great Heaven! how the whole world and herself had become transformed in this moment of unspeakable bliss! Rorie, the lost, the surrendered, was her own true lover after all!

“Yes, dear, I obeyed you. You were hard and cruel to me that night in the fir plantation; but I knew in my heart of hearts that you were wise, and honest, and true; and I made up my mind that I would keep the engagement entered upon beside my mother’s death-bed. Loving or unloving I would marry Mabel Ashbourne, and do my duty to her, and go down to my grave with the character of a good and faithful husband, as many a man has done who never loved his wife. So I held on, Vixen — yes, I will call you by the old pet name now: henceforward you are mine, and I shall call you what I like — I held on, and was altogether an exemplary lover; went wherever I was ordered to go, and always came when they whistled for me; rode at my lady’s jog-trot pace in the Row, stood behind her chair at the opera, endured more classical music than ever man heard before and lived, listened to my sweetheart’s manuscript verses, and, in a word, did my duty in that state of life to which it had pleased God to call me; and my reward has been to be jilted with every circumstance of ignominy on my wedding-morning.”

“Jilted!” cried Vixen, her big brown eyes shining, in pleasantest mockery. “Why I thought Lady Mabel adored you?”

“So did I,” answered Roderick naïvely, “and I pitied the poor dear thing for her infatuation. Had I not thought that, I should have broken my bonds long ago. It was not the love of the Duke’s acres that held me. I still believe that Mabel was fond of me once, but Lord Mallow bowled me out. His eloquence, his parliamentary success, and, above all, his flattery, proved irresistible. The scoundrel brought a marriage certificate in his pocket when he came to stay at Ashbourne, and had the art to engage rooms at Southampton and sleep there a night en passant. He left a portmanteau and a hat-box there, and that constituted legal occupancy; so, when he won Lady Mabel’s consent to an elopement — which I believe he did not succeed in doing till the night before our intended wedding-day — he had only to ride over to Southampton and give notice to the parson and clerk. The whole thing was done splendidly. Lady Mabel went out at eight o’clock, under the pretence of going to early church. Mallow was waiting for her with a fly, half a mile from Ashbourne. They drove to Southampton together, and were married at ten o’clock, in the old church of St. Michael. While the distracted Duchess and her women were hunting everywhere for the bride, and all the visitors at Ashbourne were arraying themselves in their wedding finery, and the village children were filling their baskets with flowers to strew upon the pathway of the happy pair, emblematical of the flowers which do not blossom in the highway of life, the lady was over the border with Jock o’ Hazeldean! Wasn’t it fun, Vixen?”

And the jilted one flung back his handsome head and laughed long and loud. It was too good a joke, the welcome release coming at the last moment.

“At half-past ten there came a telegram from my runaway bride:

“‘Ask Roderick to forgive me, dear mamma. I found at the last that my heart was not mine to give, and I am married to Lord Mallow. I do not think my cousin will grieve very much.’

“That last clause was sensible, anyhow, was it not, Vixen?”

“I think the whole business was very sensible,” said Vixen, with a sweet grave smile; “Lord Mallow wanted a clever wife and you did not. It was very wise of Lady Mabel to find that out before it was too late.”

“She will be very happy as Lady Mallow,” said Roderick. “Mallow will legislate for Ireland, and she will rule him. He will have quite enough of Home Rule, poor beggar. Hibernia will be Mabelised. She is a dear good little thing. I quite love her, now she has jilted me.”

“But how did you come here?” asked Vixen, looking up at her lover in simple wonder. “All this happened only yesterday morning.”

“Is there not a steamer that leaves Southampton nightly? Had there not been one I would have chartered a boat for myself. I would have come in a cockle-shell — I would have come with a swimming-belt — I would have done anything wild and adventurous to hasten to my love. I started for Southampton the minute I had seen that too blessed telegram; went to St. Michael’s, saw the register with its entry of Lord Mallow’s marriage, hardly dry; and then went down to the docks and booked my berth. Oh, what a long day yesterday was — the longest day of my life!”

“And of mine,” sighed Vixen, between tears and laughter, “in spite of the Shepherd Kings.”

“Are those Jersey people you have picked up?” Rorie asked innocently.

This turned the scale, and Vixen burst into a joyous peal of laughter.

“How did you find me here?” she asked.

“Very easily. Your custodian — what a grim-looking personage she is, by-the-way — told me where you were gone, and directed me how to follow you. I told her I had a most important message to deliver to you from your mother. You don’t mind that artless device, I hope?”

“Not much. How is dear mamma? She complains in her letters of not feeling very well.”

“I have not seen her lately. When I did, I thought her looking ill and worn. She will get well when you go back to her, Vixen. Your presence will be like sunshine.”

“I shall never go back to the Abbey House.”

“Yes, you will — for one fortnight at least. After that your home will be at Briarwood. You must be married from your father’s house.”

“Who said I was going to be married, sir?” asked Vixen, with delicious coquetry.

“I said it — I say it. Do you think I am too bold, darling? Ought I to go on my knees, love, and make you a formal offer? Why I have loved you all my life; and I think you have loved me as long.”

“So I have, Rorie,” she answered softly, shyly, sweetly. “I forswore myself that night in the fir-wood. I always loved you; there was no stage of my life when you were not dearer to me than anyone on earth, except my father.”

“Dear love, I am ashamed of my happiness,” said Roderick tenderly. “I have been so weak and unworthy. I gave away my hopes of bliss in one foolishly soft moment, to gratify my mother’s dying wish — a wish that had been dinned into my ear the last years of her life — and I have done nothing but repent my folly ever since. Can you forgive me, Violet? I shall never forgive myself.”

“Let the past be like a dream that we have dreamt. It will make the future seem so much the brighter.”

“Yes.”

And then under the blue August sky, fearless and unabashed, these happy lovers gave each other the kiss of betrothal.

“What am I to do with you?” Vixen asked laughingly. “I ought to go home to Les Tourelles.”

“Don’t you think you might take me with you? I am your young man now, you know. I hope it is not a case of ‘no followers allowed.’”

“I’m afraid Miss Skipwith will feel disappointed in me. She thought I was going to have a mission.”

“A mission!”

“Yes; that I was going for theology. And for it all to end in my being engaged to be married! It seems such a commonplace ending, does it not?”

“Decidedly. As commonplace as the destiny of Adam and Eve, whom God joined together in Eden. Take me back to Les Tourelles, Vixen. I think I shall be able to manage Miss Skipwith.”

They left the battlements, and descended the narrow stairs, and went side by side, through sunlit fields and lanes, to the old Carolian manor house, happy with that unutterable, immeasurable joy which belongs to happy love, and to love only; whether it be the romantic passion of a Juliet leaning from her balcony, the holy bliss of a mother hanging over her child’s cradle, or the sober affection of the wife who has seen the dawn and close of a silver wedding and yet loves on with love unchangeable — a monument of constancy in an age of easy divorce.

The distance was long; but to these two the walk was of the shortest. It was as if they trod on flowers or airy cloud, so lightly fell their footsteps on the happy earth.

What would Miss Skipwith say? Vixen laughed merrily at the image of that cheated lady.

“To think that all my Egyptian researches should end in — Antony!” she said, with a joyous look at her lover, who required to be informed which Antony she meant.

“I remember him in Plutarch,” he said. “He was a jolly fellow.”

“And in Shakespeare.”

Connais pas,” said Rorie. “I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays, of course, but not all. He wrote too much.”

It was five o’clock in the afternoon when they arrived at Les Tourelles. They had loitered a little in those sunny lanes, stopping to look seaward through a gap in the hedge, or to examine a fern which was like the ferns of Hampshire. They had such a world of lovers’ nonsense to say to each other, such confessions of past unhappiness, such schemes of future bliss.

“I’m afraid you’ll never like Briarwood as well as the Abbey House,” said Rorie humbly. “I tried my best to patch it up for Lady Mabel; for, you see, as I felt I fell short in the matter of affection, I wanted to do the right thing in furniture and decorations. But the house is lamentably modern and commonplace. I’m afraid you’ll never be happy there.”

“Rorie, I could be happy with you if our home were no better than the charcoal-burner’s hut in Mark Ash,” protested Vixen.

“It’s very good of you to say that. Do you like sage-green?” Rorie asked with a doubtful air.

“Pretty well. It reminds me of mamma’s dress-maker, Madame Theodore.”

“Because Mabel insisted upon having sage-green curtains, and chair-covers, and a sage-green wall with a chocolate dado — did you ever hear of a dado? — in the new morning-room I built for her. I’m rather afraid you won’t like it; I should have preferred pink or blue myself, and no dado. It looks so much as if one had run short of wall-paper. But it can all be altered by-and-by, if you don’t like it.”

They found Miss Skipwith pacing the weedy gravel walk in front of her parlour window, with a disturbed air, and a yellow envelope in her hand.

“My dear, this has been an eventful day,” she exclaimed. “I have been very anxious for your return. Here is a telegram for you; and as it is the first you have had since you have been staying here, I conclude it is of some importance.”

Vixen took the envelope eagerly from her hand.

“If you were not standing by my side, a telegram would frighten me,” she whispered to Roderick. “It might tell me you were dead.”

The telegram was from Captain Winstanley to Miss Tempest:

“Come home by the next boat. Your mother is ill, and anxious to see you. The carriage will meet you at Southampton.”

Poor Vixen looked at her lover with a conscience-stricken countenance.

“Oh, Rorie, and I have been so wickedly, wildly happy!” she cried, as if it were a crime to have so rejoiced. “And I made so light of mamma’s last letter, in which she complained of being ill. I hardly gave it a thought.”

“I don’t suppose there is anything very wrong,” said Rorie, in a comforting tone, after he had studied those few bold words in the telegram, trying to squeeze the utmost meaning out of the brief sentence. “You see, Captain Winstanley does not say that your mother is dangerously ill, or even very ill; he only says ill. That might mean something quite insignificant — hay-fever or neuralgia, or a nervous headache.”

“But he tells me to go home — he who hates me, and was so glad to get me out of the house.”

“It is your mother who summons you home, no doubt. She is mistress in her own house, of course.”

“You would not say that if you knew Captain Winstanley.”

They were alone together on the gravel walk, Miss Skipwith having retired to make tea in her dingy parlour. It had dawned upon her that this visitor of Miss Tempest’s was no common friend; and she had judiciously left the lovers together. “Poor misguided child!” she murmured to herself pityingly; “just as she was developing a vocation for serious things! But perhaps if is all for the best. I doubt if she would ever have had breadth of mind to grapple with the great problems of natural religion.”

“Isn’t it dreadful?” said Vixen, walking up and down with the telegram in her hand. “I shall have to endure hours of suspense before I can know how my poor mother is. There is no boat till to-morrow morning. It’s no use talking, Rorie.” Mr. Vawdrey was following her up and down the walk affectionately, but not saying a word. “I feel convinced that mamma must be seriously ill; I should not be sent for unless it were so. In all her letters there has not been a word about my going home. I was not wanted.”

“But, dearest love, you know that your mother is apt to think seriously of trifles.”

“Rorie, you told me an hour ago that she was looking ill when last you saw her.”

Roderick looked at his watch.

“There is one thing I might do,” he said, musingly. “Has Miss Skipwith a horse and trap?”

“Not the least in the world.”

“That’s a pity; it would have saved time. I’ll get down to St. Helier’s somehow, telegraph to Captain Winstanley to inquire the exact state of your mother’s health, and not come back till I bring you his answer.”

“Oh, Rorie, that would be good of you!” exclaimed Vixen. “But it seems too cruel to send you away like that; you have been travelling so long. You have had nothing to eat. You must be dreadfully tired.”

“Tired! Have I not been with you? There are some people whose presence makes one unconscious of humanity’s weaknesses. No, darling, I am neither tired nor hungry; I am only ineffably happy. I’ll go down and set the wires in motion; and then I’ll find out all about the steamer for to-morrow morning, and we will go back to Hampshire together.”

And again the rejoicing lover quoted the Laureate:

“And on her lover’s arm she leant,

And round her waist she felt it fold;

And far across the hills they went,

In that new world which is the old.”

Rorie had to walk all the way to St. Helier’s. He dispatched an urgent message to Captain Winstanley, and then dined temperately at a French restaurant not far from the quay, where the bon vivants of Jersey are wont to assemble nightly. When he had dined he walked about the harbour, looking at the ships, and watching the lights beginning to glimmer from the barrack-windows, and the straggling street along the shore, and the far-off beacons shining out, as the rosy sunset darkened to purple night.

He went to the office two or three times before the return message had come; but at last it was handed to him, and he read it by the office-lamp:

Captain Winstanley, Abbey House, Hampshire, to Mr. Vawdrey, St. Heliers.

“My wife is seriously ill, but in no immediate danger. The doctors order extreme quiet; all agitation is to be carefully avoided. Let Miss Tempest bear this in mind when she comes home.”

Roderick drove back to Les Tourelles with this message, which was in some respects reassuring, or at any rate afforded a certainty less appalling than Violet’s measureless fears.

Vixen was sitting on the pilgrim’s bench beside the manor house gateway, watching for her lover’s return. Oh, happy lover, to be thus watched for and thus welcomed; thrice, nay, a thousandfold happy in the certainty that she was his own for ever! He put his arm round her, and they wandered along the shadowy lane together, between dewy banks of tangled verdure, luminous with glow-worms. The stars were shining above the overarching roof of foliage, the harvest moon was rising over the distant sea.

“What a beautiful place Jersey is!” exclaimed Vixen innocently, as she strolled lower down the lane, circled by her lover’s arm. “I had no idea it was half so lovely. But then of course I was never allowed to roam about in the moonlight. And, indeed, Rorie, I think we had better go in directly. Miss Skipwith will be wondering.”

“Let her wonder, love. I can explain everything when we go in. She was young herself once upon a time, though one would hardly give her credit for it; and you may depend she has walked in this lane by moonlight. Yes, by the light of that very same sober old moon, who has looked down with the same indulgent smile upon endless generations of lovers.”

“From Adam and Eve to Antony and Cleopatra,” suggested Vixen, who couldn’t get Egypt out of her head.

“Antony and Cleopatra were middle-aged lovers,” said Rorie. “The moon must have despised them. Youth is the only season when love is wisdom, Vixen. In later life it means folly and drivelling, wrinkles badly hidden under paint, pencilled eyebrows, and false hair. Aphrodite should be for ever young.”

“Perhaps that’s why the poor thing puts on paint and false hair when she finds youth departed,” said Vixen.

“Then she is no longer Aphrodite, but Venus Pandemos, and a wicked old harridan,” answered Rorie.

And then he began to sing, with a rich full voice that rolled far upon the still air.

“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying,

“Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry;

For having lost but once your prime,

You may for ever tarry.”

“What a fine voice you have, Rorie!” cried Vixen.

“Have I really? I thought that it was only Lord Mallow who could sing. Do you know that I was desperately jealous of that nobleman, once — when I fancied he was singing himself into your affections. Little did I think that he was destined to become your greatest benefactor.”

“I shall make you sing duets with me, sir, by-and-by.”

“You shall make me stand on my head, or play clown in an amateur pantomime, or do anything supremely ridiculous, if you like. ‘Being your slave what can I do ——’”

“Yes, you must sing Mendelssohn with me. ‘I would that my love,’ and ‘Greeting.’”

“I have only one idea of greeting, after a cruel year of parting and sadness,” said Rorie, drawing the bright young face to his own, and covering it with kisses.

Again Vixen urged that Miss Skipwith would be wondering, and this time with such insistence, that Rorie was obliged to turn back and ascend the hill.

“How cruel it is of you to snatch a soul out of Elysium,” he remonstrated. “I felt as if I was lost in some happy dream — wandering down this path, which leads I know not where, into a dim wooded vale, such as the fairies love to inhabit?”

“The road leads down to the inn at Le Tac, where Cockney excursionists go to eat lobsters, and play skittles,” said Vixen, laughing at her lover.

They went back to the manor house, where they found Miss Skipwith annotating a tremendous manuscript on blue foolscap, a work whose outward semblance would have been enough to frighten and deter any publisher in his right mind.

“How late you are, Violet,” she said, looking up dreamily from her manuscript. “I have been rewriting and polishing portions of my essay on Buddha. The time has flown, and I had no idea of the hour till Doddery came in just now to ask if he could shut up the house. And then I remembered that you had gone out to the gate to watch for Mr. Vawdrey.”

“I’m afraid you must think our goings on rather eccentric,” Rorie began shyly; “but perhaps Vix —— Miss Tempest has told you what old friends we are; that, in fact, I am quite the oldest friend she has. I came to Jersey on purpose to ask her to marry me, and she has been good enough”— smiling blissfully at Vixen, who tried to look daggers at him —“to say Yes.”

“Dear me!” exclaimed Miss Skipwith, looking much alarmed; “this is very embarrassing. I am so unversed in such matters. My life has been given up to study, far from the haunts of man. My nephew informed me that there was a kind of — in point of fact — a flirtation between Miss Tempest and a gentleman in Hampshire, of which he highly disapproved, the gentleman being engaged to marry his cousin.”

“It was I,” cried Rorie, “but there was no flirtation between Miss Tempest and me. Whoever asserted such a thing was a slanderer and —— I won’t offend you by saying what he was, Miss Skipwith. There was no flirtation. I was Miss Tempest’s oldest friend — her old playfellow, and we liked to see each other, and were always friendly together. But it was an understood thing that I was to marry my cousin. It was Miss Tempest’s particular desire that I should keep an engagement made beside my mother’s death-bed. If Miss Tempest had thought otherwise, I should have been at her feet. I would have flung that engagement to the winds; for Violet Tempest is the only woman I ever loved. And now all the world may know it, for my cousin has jilted me, and I am a free man.”

“Good gracious! Can I really believe this?” asked Miss Skipwith, appealing to Violet.

“Rorie never told a falsehood in his life,” Vixen answered proudly.

“I feel myself in a most critical position, my dear child,” said Miss Skipwith, looking from Roderick’s frank eager face to Vixen’s downcast eyelids and mantling blushes. “I had hoped such a different fate for you. I thought the thirst for knowledge had arisen within you, that the aspiration to distinguish yourself from the ruck of ignorant women would follow the arising of that thirst, in natural sequence. And here I find you willing to marry a gentleman who happens to have been the companion of your childhood, and to resign — for his sake — all hopes of distinction.”

“My chances of distinction were so small, dear Miss Skipwith,” faltered Vixen. “If I had possessed your talents!”

“True,” sighed the reformer of all the theologies. “We have not all the same gifts. There was a day when I thought it would be my lot to marry and subside into the dead level of domesticity; but I am thankful to think I escaped the snare.”

“And the gentleman who wanted to marry you, how thankful must he be!” thought Rorie dumbly.

“Yet there have been moments of depression when I have been weak enough to regret those early days,” sighed Miss Skipwith. “At best our strength is tempered with weakness. It is the fate of genius to be lonely. And now I suppose I am to lose you, Violet?”

“I am summoned home to poor mamma,” said Vixen.

“And after poor mamma has recovered, as I hope she speedily may, Violet will be wanted by her poor husband,” said Rorie. “You must come across the sea and dance at our wedding, Miss Skipwith.”

“Ah,” sighed Miss Skipwith, “if you could but have waited for the establishment of my universal church, what a grand ceremonial your marriage might have been!”

Miss Skipwith, though regretful, and inclined to take a dismal view of the marriage state and its responsibilities under the existing dispensation, was altogether friendly. She had a frugal supper of cold meat and salad, bread and cheese and cider, served in honour of Mr. Vawdrey, and they three sat till midnight talking happily — Miss Skipwith of theology, the other two of themselves and the smiling future, and such an innocent forest life as Rosalind and Orlando may have promised themselves, when they were deep in love, and the banished duke’s daughter sighed for no wider kingdom than a shepherd’s hut in the woodland, with the lover of her choice.

There were plenty of spare bedrooms at the manor house, but so bare and empty, so long abandoned of human occupants, as to be fit only for the habitation of mice and spiders, stray bat or wandering owl. So Roderick had to walk down the hill again to St. Helier’s, where he found hospitality at an hotel. He was up betimes, too happy to need much sleep, and at seven o’clock he and Vixen were walking in the dewy garden, planning the wonderful life they were to lead at Briarwood, and all the good they were to do. Happiness was to radiate from their home, as heat from the sun. The sick, and the halt, and the lame were to come to Briarwood; as they had come to the Abbey House before Captain Winstanley’s barren rule of economy.

“God has been so good to us, Rorie,” said Vixen, nestling at her lovers side. “Can we ever be good enough to others?”

“We’ll do our best, anyhow, little one,” he answered gently. “I am not like Mallow, I’ve no great ideas about setting my native country in order and doing away with the poor laws; but I’ve always tried to make the people round me happy, and to keep them out of the workhouse and the county jail.”

They went to the court-yard where poor Argus lived his life of isolation, and they told him they were going to be married, and that his pathway henceforward would be strewn with roses, or at all events Spratt’s biscuits. He was particularly noisy and demonstrative, and appeared to receive this news with a wild rapture that was eminently encouraging, doing his best to knock Roderick down, in the tumult of his delight. The lovers and the dog were alike childish in their infinite happiness, unthinking beings of the present hour, too happy to look backward or forward, this little space of time called “now” holding all things needful for delight.

These are the rare moments of life, to which the heart of man cries, “Oh stay, thou art so beautiful!” and could the death-bell toll then, and doom come then, life would end in a glorious euthanasia.

Violet’s portmanteaux were packed. Alt was ready. There would be just time for a hurried breakfast with Miss Skipwith, and then the fly from St. Helier’s would be at the gate to carry the exile on the first stage of the journey home.

“Poor mamma!” sighed Vixen. “How wicked of me to feel go happy, when she is ill.”

And then Rorie comforted her with kindly-meant sophistries. Mrs. Winstanley’s indisposition was doubtless more an affair of the nerves than a real illness. She would be cheered and revived immediately by her daughter’s return.

“How could she suppose she would be able to live without you!” cried Rorie. “I know I found life hard to bear.”

“Yet you bore it for more than a year with admirable patience,” retorted Vixen, laughing at him; “and I do not find you particularly altered or emaciated.”

“Oh, I used to eat and drink,” said Rorie, with a look of self-contempt. “I’m afraid I’m a horribly low-minded brute. I used even to enjoy my dinner, sometimes, after a long country ride; but I could never make you understand what a bore life was to me all last year, how the glory and enjoyment seemed to have gone out of existence. The dismal monotony of my days weighed upon me like a nightmare. Life had become a formula. I felt like a sick man who has to take so many doses of medicine, so many pills, so many basins of broth, in the twenty-four hours. There was no possible resistance. The sick-nurse was there, in the shape of Fate, ready to use brute force if I rebelled. I never did rebel. I assure you, Vixen, I was a model lover. Mabel and I had not a single quarrel. I think that is a proof that we did not care a straw for each other.”

“You and I will have plenty of quarrels,” said Vixen. “It will be so nice to make friends again.”

Now came the hurried breakfast — a cup of tea drunk, standing, not a crumb eaten; agitated adieux to Miss Skipwith, who wept very womanly tears over her departing charge, and uttered good wishes in a choking voice. Even the Dodderys seemed to Vixen more human than usual, now that she was going to leave them, in all likelihood for ever. Miss Skipwith came to the gate to see the travellers off, and ascended the pilgrim’s bench in order to have the latest view of the fly. From this eminence she waved her handkerchief as a farewell salutation.

“Poor soul!” sighed Vixen; “she has never been unkind to me; but oh! what a dreary life I have led in that dismal old house!”

They had Argus in the fly with them, sitting up, with his mouth open, and his tail flapping against the bottom of the vehicle in perpetual motion. He kept giving his paw first to Vixen and then to Rorie, and exacted a great deal of attention, insomuch that Mr. Vawdrey exclaimed:

“Vixen, if you don’t keep that dog within bounds, I shall think him as great a nuisance as a stepson. I offered to marry you, you know, not you and your dog.”

“You are very rude!” cried Vixen.

“You don’t expect me to be polite, I hope. What is the use of marrying one’s old playfellow if one cannot be uncivil to her now and then? To me you will always be the tawny-haired little girl I used to tease.”

“Who used to tease you, you mean. You were very meek in those days.”

Oh, what a happy voyage that was, over the summer sea! They sat side by side upon the bridge, sheltered from wind and sun, and talked the happy nonsense lovers talk: but which can hardly be so sweet between lovers whose youth and childhood have been spent far apart, as between these two who had been reared amidst the same sylvan world, and had every desire and every thought in unison. How brief the voyage seemed. It was but an hour or so since Roderick had been buying peaches and grapes, as they lay at the end of the pier at Guernsey, and here were the Needles and the chalky cliffs and undulating downs of the Wight. The Wight! That meant Hampshire and home!

“How often those downs have been our weather-glass, Rorie, when we have been riding across the hills between Lyndhurst and Beaulieu,” said Vixen.

She had a world of questions to ask him about all that had happened during her exile. She almost expected to hear that Lyndhurst steeple had fallen; that the hounds had died of old age; that the Knightwood Oak had been struck by lightning; or that some among those calamities which time naturally brings had befallen the surroundings of her home. It was the strangest thing in the world to hear that nothing had happened, that everything was exactly the same as it had been when she went away. That dreary year of exile had seemed long enough for earthquakes and destructions, or even for slow decay.

“Do you know what became of Arion?” asked Vixen, almost afraid to shape the question.

“Oh, I believe he was sold, soon after you left home,” Rorie answered carelessly.

“Sold!” echoed Vixen drearily. “Poor dear thing! Yes, I felt sure Captain Winstanley would sell him. But I hoped ——”

“What?”

“That some one I knew might buy him. Lord Mallow perhaps.”

“Lord Mallow! Ah, you thought he would buy your horse, for love of the rider. But you see constancy isn’t one of that noble Irishman’s virtues. He loves and he rides away — when the lady won’t have him, bien entendu. No, Arion was sent up to Tattersall’s, and disposed of in the usual way. Some fellow bought him for a covert hack.”

“I hope the man wasn’t a heavy weight,” exclaimed Vixen, almost in tears.

She thought Rorie was horribly unfeeling.

“What does it matter? A horse must earn his salt.”

“I had rather my poor pet had been shot, and buried in one of the meadows at home,” said Vixen plaintively.

“Captain Winstanley was too wise to allow that. Your poor pet fetched a hundred and forty-five guineas under the hammer.”

“I don’t think it is very kind of you to talk of him so lightly,” said Vixen.

This was the only little cloud that came between them in all the voyage. Long before sunset they were steaming into Southampton Water, and the yellow light was still shining on the furzy levels, when the brougham that contained Vixen and her fortunes drove along the road to Lyndhurst.

She had asked the coachman for news of his mistress, and had been told that Mrs. Winstanley was pretty much the same. The answer was in some measure reassuring: yet Violet’s spirits began to sink as she drew nearer home, and must so soon find herself face to face with the truth. There was a sadness too in that quiet evening hour; and the shadowy distances seemed full of gloom, after the dancing waves, and the gay morning light.

The dusk was creeping slowly on as the carriage passed the lodge, and drove between green walls of rhododendron to the house. Captain Winstanley was smoking his cigar in the porch, leaning against the Gothic masonry, in the attitude Vixen knew so well of old.

“If my mother were lying in her coffin I daresay he would be just the same,” she thought bitterly.

The Captain came down to open the carriage-door. Vixen’s first glance at his face showed her that he looked worn and anxious.

“Is mamma very ill?” she asked tremulously.

“Very ill,” he answered, in a low voice. “Mind, you are to do or say nothing that can agitate her. You must be quiet and cheerful. If you see a change you must take care to say nothing about it.”

“Why did you leave me so long in ignorance of her illness? Why did you not send for me sooner?”

“Your mother has only been seriously ill within the past few days. I sent for you directly I saw any occasion for your presence,” the Captain answered coldly.

He now for the first time became aware of Mr. Vawdrey, who had got out of the brougham on the other side and came round to assist in the unshipment of Violet’s belongings.

“Good evening, Mr. Vawdrey. Where in Heaven’s name did you spring from?” he inquired, with a vexed air.

“I have had the honour of escorting Miss Tempest from Jersey, where I happened to be when she received your telegram.”

“Wasn’t that rather an odd proceeding, and likely to cause scandal?”

“I think not; for before people can hear that Miss Tempest and I crossed in the same boat I hope they will have heard that Miss Tempest and I are going to be married.”

“I see,” cried the Captain, with a short laugh of exceeding bitterness; “being off with the old love you have made haste to be on with the new.”

“I beg your pardon. It is no new love, but a love as old as my boyhood,” answered Rorie. “In one weak moment of my life I was foolish enough to let my mother choose a wife for me, though I had made my own choice, unconsciously, years before.”

“May I go to mamma at once?” asked Vixen.

The Captain said Yes, and she went up the staircase and along the corridor to Mrs. Winstanley’s room. Oh, how dear and familiar the old house looked, how full of richness and colour after the bareness and decay of Les Tourelles; brocaded curtains hanging in heavy folds against the carved oaken framework of a deep-set window; gleams of evening light stealing through old stained glass; everywhere a rich variety of form and hue that filled and satisfied the eye; a house worth living in assuredly, with but a little love to sanctify and hallow all these things. But how worthless these things if discord and hatred found a habitation among them.

The door of Mrs. Winstanley’s room stood half open, and the lamplight shone faintly from within. Violet went softly in. Her mother was lying on a sofa by the hearth, where a wood-fire had been newly lighted. Pauline was sitting opposite her, reading aloud in a very sleepy voice out of the Court Journal: “The bride was exquisitely attired in ivory satin, with flounces of old Duchesse lace, the skirt covered with tulle, bouilloné, and looped with garlands of orange-blossom ——”

“Pauline,” murmured the invalid feebly, “will you never learn to read with expression? You are giving me the vaguest idea of Lady Evelyn Fitzdamer’s appearance.”

Violet went over to the sofa and knelt by her mother’s side and embraced her tenderly, looking at her earnestly all the while, in the clear soft lamp-light. Yes, there was indeed a change. The always delicate face was pinched and shrunken. The ivory of the complexion had altered to a dull gray. Premature age had hollowed the cheeks, and lined the forehead. It was a change that meant decline and death. Violet’s heart sank as she beheld it: but she remembered the Captain’s warning, and bravely strove to put on an appearance of cheerfulness.

“Dear mother, I am so happy to come home to you,” she said gaily; “and I am going to nurse and pet you, for the next week or so; till you get tremendously well and strong, and are able to take me to innumerable parties.”

“My dear Violet, I have quite given up parties; and I stall never be strong again.”

“Dearest, it has always been your habit to fancy yourself an invalid.”

“Yes, Violet, once I may have been full of fancies: but now I know that I am ill. You will not be unkind or unjust to Conrad, will you, dear? He sent for you directly I asked him. He has been all goodness to me. Try and get on with him nicely, dear, for my sake.”

This was urged with such piteous supplication, that it would have needed a harder heart than Violet’s to deny the prayer.

“Dear mother, forget that the Captain and I ever quarrelled,” said Vixen. “I mean to be excellent friends with him henceforward. And, darling, I have a secret to tell you if you would like to hear it.”

“What secret, dear?”

“Lady Mabel Ashbourne has jilted Roderick!”

“My love, that is no secret. I heard all about it day before yesterday. People have talked of nothing else since it happened. Lady Mabel has behaved shamefully.”

“Lady Mabel has behaved admirably. If other women were wise enough to draw back at the last moment there would be fewer unhappy marriages. But Lady Mabel’s elopement is only the prologue to my story.”

“What can you mean, child?”

“Roderick came to Jersey to make me an offer.”

“So soon! Oh, Violet, what bad taste!”

“Ought he to have gone into mourning? He did not even sing willow, but came straight off to me, and told me he had loved me all his life; so now you will have my trousseau to think about, dearest, and I shall want all your good taste. You know how little I have of my own.”

“Ah, Violet, if you had only married Lord Mallow! I could have given my whole mind to your trousseau then; but it is too late now, dear. I have not strength enough to interest myself in anything.”

The truth of this complaint was painfully obvious. Pamela’s day was done. She lay, half effaced among her down pillows, as weak and helpless-looking as a snowdrop whose stem is broken. The life that was left in her was the merest remnant of life. It was as if one could see the last sands running down in the glass of time.

Violet sat by her side, and pressed her cold hands in both her own. Mrs. Winstanley was very cold, although the log had blazed up fiercely, and the room seemed stifling to the traveller who had come out of the cool night air.

“Dear mother, there will be no pleasure for me in being married if you do not take an interest in my trousseau,” pleaded Vixen, trying to cheer the invalid by dwelling on the things her soul had most loved in health.

“Do not talk about it, my dear,” her mother exclaimed peevishly. “I don’t know where the money is to come from. Theodore’s bill was positively dreadful. Poor Conrad had quite a struggle to pay it. You will be rich when you are of age, but we are awfully poor. If we do not save money during the next few years we shall be destitute. Conrad says so. Fifteen hundred a year, and a big house like this to maintain. It would be starvation. Conrad has closed Theodore’s account. I am sure I don’t know where your trousseau is to come from.”

Here the afflicted Pamela began to sob hysterically, and Vixen found it hard work to comfort her.

“My dearest mother, how can you be poor and I rich?” she said, when the invalid had been tranquillised, and was lying helpless and exhausted. “Do you suppose I would not share my income with you? Rorie has plenty of money. He would not want any of mine. You can have it all, if you like.”

“You talk like a child, Violet. You know nothing of the world. Do you think I would take your money, and let people say I robbed my own daughter? I have a little too much self-respect for that. Conrad is doing all he can to make our future comfortable. I have been foolish and extravagant. But I shall never be so any more. I do not care about dress or society now. I have outlived those follies.”

“Dear mother, I cannot bear to hear you talk like that,” said Vixen, feeling that when her mother left off caring about fine dresses she must be getting ready for that last garment which we must all wear some day, the fashion whereof changes but little. “Why should you relinquish society, or leave off dressing stylishly? You are in the prime of life.”

“No, Violet, I am a poor faded creature,” whimpered Mrs. Winstanley, “stout women are handsome at forty, or even”— with a shudder —“five-and-forty. The age suits their style. But I was always slim and fragile, and of late I have grown painfully thin. No one but a Parisian dressmaker could make me presentable; and I have done with Paris dresses. The utmost I can hope for is to sit alone by the fireside, and work antimacassars in crewels.”

“But, dear mother, you did not marry Captain Winstanley in order to lead such a life as that? You might as well be in a béguinage.”

Vain were Vixen’s efforts to console and cheer. A blight had fallen upon her mother’s mind and spirits — a blight that had crept slowly on, unheeded by the husband, till one morning the local practitioner — a gentleman who had lived all his life among his patients, and knew them so well externally that he might fairly be supposed to have a minute acquaintance with their internal organism — informed Captain Winstanley that he feared there was something wrong with his wife’s heart, and that he thought that it would be well to get the highest opinion.

The Captain, startled out of his habitual self-command, looked up from his desk with an ashy countenance.

“Do you mean that Mrs. Winstanley has heart disease — something organically wrong?”

“Unhappily I fear it is so. I have been for some time aware that she had a weak heart. Her complexion, her feeble circulation, several indications have pointed to that conclusion. This morning I have made a thorough examination, and I find mischief, decided mischief.”

“That means she may die at any moment, suddenly, without an instant’s warning.”

“There would always be that fear. Or she might sink gradually from want of vital power. There is a sad deficiency of power. I hardly ever knew anyone remain so long in so low a state.”

“You have been attending her, off and on, ever since our marriage. You must have seen her sinking. Why have you not warned me before?”

“It seemed hardly necessary. You must have perceived the change yourself. You must have noticed her want of appetite, her distaste for exertion of any kind, her increasing feebleness.”

“I am not a doctor.”

“No; but these are things that speak plainly to every eye — to the eye of affection most of all.”

“We are slow to perceive the alteration in anyone we see daily and hourly. You should have drawn my attention to my wife’s health. It is unfair, it is horrible to let this blow come upon me unawares.”

If the Captain had appeared indifferent hitherto, there was no doubt of the intensity of his feeling now. He had started up from his chair, and walked backwards and forwards, strongly agitated.

“Shall we have another opinion?” asked Dr. Martin.

“Certainly. The highest in the land.”

“Dr. Lorrimer, of Harley Street, is the most famous man for heart disease.”

“I’ll telegraph to him immediately,” said the Captain.

He ordered his horse, rode into Lyndhurst and dispatched his telegram without the loss of a minute. Never had Dr. Martin seen anyone more in earnest, or more deeply stricken by an announcement of evil.

“Poor fellow, he must be very fond of her,” mused the surgeon, as he rode off to his next call. “And yet I should have thought she must be rather a tiresome kind of woman to live with. Her income dies with her I suppose. That makes a difference.”

The specialist from Harley Street arrived at the Abbey House on the following afternoon. He made his examination and gave his opinion, which was very much the same as Dr. Martin’s, but clothed in more scientific language.

“This poor lady’s heart has been wearing out for the last twenty years,” he told the local surgeon; “but she seems, from your account, to have been using it rather worse for the last year or so. Do you know if she has had any particular occasion for worry?”

“Her only daughter has not got on very well with the second husband, I believe,” said Dr. Martin. “That may have worried her.”

“Naturally. Small domestic anxieties of that kind are among the most potent causes of heart disease.” And then Dr. Lorrimer gave his instructions about treatment. He had not the faintest hope of saving the patient, but he gave her the full benefit of his science. A man could scarcely come so far and do less. When he went out into the hall and met the Captain, who was waiting anxiously for his verdict, he began in the usual oracular strain; but Captain Winstanley cut him short without ceremony.

“I don’t want to hear details,” he said. “Martin will do everything you tell him. I want the best or the worst you can tell me in straightest language. Can you save my wife, or am I to lose her?”

“My dear sir, while there is life there is hope,” answered the physician, with the compassionate air that had grown habitual, like his black frock-coat and general sobriety of attire. “I have seen wonderful recoveries — or rather a wonderful prolongation of life, for cure is, of course, impossible — in cases as bad as this. But ——”

“Ah!” cried the Captain, bitterly, “there is a ‘but.’”

“In this case there is a sad want of rallying power. Frankly, I have very little hope. Do all you can to cheer and comfort your wife’s mind, and to make her last days happy. All medicine apart, that is about the best advice I can give you.”

After this the doctor took his fee, gave the Captain’s hand a cordial grip, expressive of sympathy and kindliness, and went his way, feeling assured that a good deal hung upon that little life which he had left slowly ebbing away, like a narrow rivulet dwindling into dryness under a July sun.

“What does the London doctor say of me, Conrad?” asked Mrs. Winstanley, when her husband went to her presently, with his countenance composed and cheerful. “He tired me dreadfully with his stethoscope. Does he think me very ill? Is there anything wrong with my lungs?”

“No, love. It is a case of weakness and languor. You must make up your mind to get strong; and you will do more for yourself than all the physicians in London can do.”

“But what does he say of my heart? How does he explain that dreadful fluttering — the suffocating sensation — the ——?’

“He explains nothing. It is a nervous affection, which you must combat by getting strong. Dear love!” exclaimed the Captain, with a very real burst of feeling, “what can I do to make your life happy? what can I do to assure you of my love?”

“Send for Violet,” faltered his wife, raising herself upon her elbow, and looking at him with timorous eagerness. “I have never been happy since she left us. It seems as if I had turned her out of doors — out of her own house — my kind husband’s only daughter. It has preyed upon my mind continually, that — and other things.”

“Dearest, I will telegraph to her in an hour. She shall be with you as soon as the steamer can bring her.”

“A thousand thanks, Conrad. You are always good. I know I have been weak and foolish to think ——”

Here she hesitated, and tears began to roll down her hollow cheeks.

“To think what, love?” asked her husband tenderly.

If love, if tenderness, if flattery, if all sweetest things that ever man said to a woman could lure this feeble spirit back to life, she should be so won, vowed the Captain. He had never been unkind to her, or thought unkindly of her. If he had never loved her, he had, at least, been tolerant. But now, clinging to her as the representative of fortune, happiness, social status, he felt that she was assuredly his best and dearest upon earth.

“To think that you never really cared for me!” she whimpered; “that you married me for the sake of this house, and my income!”

“Pamela, do you remember what Tom Jones said to his mistress when she pretended to doubt his love?”

“My dear Conrad, I never read ‘Tom Jones,’ I have heard dear Edward talk of it as if it was something too dreadful.”

“Ah, I forgot. Of course, it is not a lady’s book. Tom told his Sophia to look in the glass, if she were inclined to question his love for her, and one look at her own sweet face would convince her of his truth. Let it be so with yourself, dear. Ask yourself why I should not love the sweetest and most lovable of women.”

If sugarplums of speech, if loverlike attentions could have cured Pamela Winstanley’s mortal sickness, she might yet have recovered. But the hour had gone by when such medicaments might have prevailed. While the Captain had shot, and hunted, and caught mighty salmon, and invested his odd hundreds, and taken his own pleasure in various ways, with almost all the freedom of bachelor life, his wife had, unawares, been slowly dying. The light had burned low in the socket; and who shall reillumine that brief candle when its day is over? It needed now but a breath to quench the feeble flame.

“Great Heaven!” cried Captain Winstanley, pacing up and down his study, distraught with the pangs of wounded self-interest; “I have been taking care of her money, when I ought to have taken care of her. It is her life that all hangs upon: and I have let that slip through my fingers while I have planned and contrived to save a few beggarly hundreds. Short-sighted idiot that I have been! Poor Pamela! And she has been so yielding, so compliant to my every wish! A month — a week, perhaps — and she will be gone: and that handsome spitfire will have the right to thrust me from this house. No, my lady, I will not afford you that triumph. My wife’s coffin and I will go out together.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/vixen/v3.9.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31